The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

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Themes and Colors
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
War Theme Icon

The play is decidedly anti-war, and promotes a generally pacifist message throughout. The play emphasizes what it sees as the senselessness of soldiers’ deaths. When Henry’s brother John dies from an infection after nicking his finger with a rusty blade, Henry is disgusted by the absurdity of such a death, and wonders how God could possibly let a good man die for such a silly reason. Later, Henry dreams in jail of fighting in the Mexican War. During the dream, John is shot—and Henry begs John not to die—“not again.” There is a suggestion in these “two deaths” of John’s that his wartime death is just as senseless and absurd and meaningless as John’s original death.

The play itself engages in a kind of activism by demonstrating the uselessness of war during a time when a huge amount of America’s resources were tied up in the particularly expensive (in terms of both capital and human lives) Vietnam War. The play asks its audience what, exactly, are those sacrifices in the name of? In doing so it joined a chorus of protest artists asking similar anti-war questions at the time.

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War ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of War appears in each act of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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War Quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

Below you will find the important quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail related to the theme of War.
Act 1 Quotes

I refuse to commit murder. That’s why I’m here.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Bailey (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry explains his political ideals to his cellmate, Bailey. Henry explains that he's been sent to jail because of his refusal to pay taxes: as he knows very well, his taxes will be used to subsidize a bloody American war in the Southwest, which will result in the deaths of thousands of American and Mexican citizens. In short, Henry is in jail because he refuses to play along with such a murderous policy.

Henry's refusal has a lot of relevance for modern-day people (and the playwrights clearly are referring to protests against the Vietnam War, going on at the time of their writing.) Henry's great insight is that his passive acceptance of the order of society has concrete, real-world ramifications. Although the average human might want to believe that he or she is generally a "good person," whose actions cause no one harm, such a person may actually be enabling murder, genocide, or other atrocities by doing something as ordinary as paying taxes. In a time of growing bureaucracy and government control, Thoreau refuses to play along: he accepts responsibility for his own actions--as a mature adult, he refuses to allow his own money and manpower to be used for a cause he considers unjust.


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Act 2 Quotes

You might try getting yourself born in a more just and generous age.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Bailey
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

Bailey, a fellow prisoner sitting with Henry in jail, asks Henry for his help. First, Bailey asks Henry to serve as his lawyer; then, when Henry refuses, Bailey asks him for any advice--Henry's only advice is for Bailey to be born in a better time, when justice and freedom are strong in society.

The passage is important for a number of reasons. First, the passage draws out attention to the similarities and differences between our own era, whatever it might be (during the Vietnam War for the playwrights), and Thoreau's. Are we really any juster or more honest with ourselves than were the people of Thoreau's society? It's a premise of the play that we have something to learn from Thoreau's courage--and therefore, our society isn't perfectly just, as nosociety is (there's no ideal "age" Bailey could really choose to be born in). Moreover, the passage emphasizes the importance of Thoreau's heroism. It's precisely because we can'tjust be born in a juster age--and that age that might not exist at all--that people like Thoreau, who fight for what's right here and now, are so valuable to our society.

I gotta git to Cañada!

Related Characters: Henry Williams (speaker), Henry David Thoreau
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

In this "flashback" passage, Thoreau gives aid and comfort to a runaway slave who's trying to get far away from his slave masters and move to Canada. Thoreau, a proponent of civil disobedience, believed that "an unjust law is not a law at all." Thus, Thoreau had no problem breaking the law to help runaway slaves--slaves who were, on paper, violating law and order. Thoreau exercised his own moral code, respecting the slaves' right to freedom and happiness. By 19th century standards, he was a criminal--by 21st century standards, he did the right thing.

The passage subtly underscores the similarities between the injustices of slavery and the injustices in Mexico that Thoreau is protesting in the play's present. With the Spanish tilde over the "n" in the word "Canada," the playwrights suggest that the American government's oppression of blacks is intimately tied to it's other bloody activities in South and Central America.

Always do the right thing, even if it’s wrong.

Related Characters: Mrs. Thoreau (speaker), Henry David Thoreau
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

In this nightmare sequence, Thoreau is forced to take up arms as a soldier in the Mexican-American War; the very war he's in jail for refusing to support in any form. As Thoreau is handed a gun, he sees his own mother, urging him to conform with the rest of society. Thoreau's mother sums up her take on right and wrong by telling her son to "do the right thing, even if it's wrong."

Thoreau's mother (in her hallucinatory form here, at least) makes an interesting distinction between socially-determined morality--the morality of obedience, respect, and conformity--and individually-determined morality--the morality of individual responsibility, free will, and choice. She seems to be saying that Thoreau--and all people--should obey their laws and orders, even if they personally believe such laws to be immoral. In short, Thoreau's mother symbolizes the exact opposite of what Thoreau himself stood for all his life.

Seems to me I’ve got several more lives to live.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Bailey
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:
The play ends with a bold call to the audience: translate Thoreau's political aims into the present day. Thoreau tells us that he believes he'll live several more lives--and the quote is interesting for a couple reasons. It seems to make Thoreau into something of a Christ figure, a martyr who's continually celebrated ("resurrected?") by later generations for living a "just life." By the same token, the passage hints at the influence Thoreau has had on modern political methods--the civil disobedience of luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk, and Malcolm X might be said to continue Thoreau's legacy. In all, the playwrights urge us to follow Thoreau's example and stand up for what we know to be right, even if that means going against all of society.